Author George Semler takes you on a quick guided tour of the Spanish capital.
There are more and better paintings in the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza museums than in any other square mile on earth; but still, you can only spend so much time indoors when youre in Madrid.
Madrid begins and ends in Plaza Mayor. Start there and radiate out through the "Madrid of the Austrias", the part of old Madrid built by the Hapsburg monarchs during the 16th and 17th centuries. Spend some time in Plaza Mayor, especially in winter when the sun reflects off the polished marble paving stones and the crisp 2000 ft.-above-sea-level air feels light and clean no matter what air pollution figures say. Plaza Mayors cafés and benches are perfect places for reading, writing and watching the world go by under a Velazquez sky that brings to mind the old Madrid saying "De Madrid al cielo " ("from Madrid to heaven ") suggesting that, after Madrid, the firmament is the next satisfactory destination.
Just east past the San Miguel market is the Plaza de la Villa, an exciting bustle of activity where youll find the town hall and the statue of Don Álvaro de Bazán, Spains greatest naval warrior. Across the street, and across Calle Mayor, not far from the excellent Ciriaco restaurant, is San Nicolás, Madrids oldest church. Farther east is Madrids newly completed cathedral, La Almudena, between the Royal Palace and the remains of the 9th century ramparts erected as an outpost of Al-Andalus, the Moorish empire on the Iberian Peninsula.
The Royal Opera House, the nearby Monasterio de la Encarnación, the Taberna del Alabardero in between, the restaurant La Bola just up on the corner of Bola and Guillermo Rolland, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales near Plaza del Sol there is much to admire in this part of town.
South of Plaza de Oriente across the Viaducto, cut down into the medieval part of town and find Plaza de la Paja, where early tithes were gathered. The churches of San Andrés and San Pedro are some of the earliest in this part of town, while San Francisco el Grande looms to the west at the end of Carrera de San Francisco. Look for the excellent Basque restaurant Gure-Etxea in Plaza de la Paja or La Taberna de los Cien Vinos, a top wine-tasting spot on Calle Nuncio. If its Sunday dont miss the Rastro, Madrids ebullient flea market, a river of humanity flowing up and down La Ribera de los Curtidores below the bronze monument to the hero of the battle of Cascorro in Spains 1898 loss of Cuba.
Heading back to Plaza Mayor, Cava Baja and Calle Cuchilleros pass some of Madrids finest restaurants, including Casa Botin, Casa Paco, Julián de Tolosa, El Schotis, Casa Lucio and a dozen more. Madrids is a winter cuisine, starring roast suckling pig or lamb and hearty stews such as the prototypical cocido madrileño. In summer look for gazpacho, seafood and salads, ideal with a chilled Valdepeñas claret.
Plaza Santa Ana is another key hub, the center of the early theater district where Spains greatest poets and playwrights Cervantes, Lope de Vega and, later, Góngora and Quevedo fought for fame, fortune, love and the limelight. Centered around the Hotel Reina Victoria are a series of taverns and restaurants ranging from La Trucha (both of them), to Casa Alberto on Calle Huertas or, ten minutes south on Mesón de Paredes, Madrids oldest tavern, La Taberna de Antonio Sanchez.
Try a sunrise jog through the Retiro park or a sunset drink at Las Vistillas near the south end of the Viaducto, or even better get lost in the Barrio de Maravillas north of Gran Vía trying to find El Bocho on Calle San Roque in time for a late lunch.
George Semler is an American journalist based in Spain. His book, Madridwalks (Henry Holt and Co.), a highly readable, entertaining and informative guide to the city, is available for $12.95 plus postage.
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